The state’s top police chiefs have breathed new life — and new controversy — into a bill that would limit state and local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities by endorsing a revised version of legislation that would turn Massachusetts into a so-called sanctuary state.
The Safe Communities Act, sponsored by Representative Juana Matias of Lawrence and Senator Jamie Eldridge of Acton, had been criticized by law enforcement and by Governor Charlie Baker, who has said he opposes the bill.
But after working with the sponsors on a compromise, the police chiefs officially endorsed a revised version of the bill Tuesday.
To mollify the chiefs, the new version contains a major change: It would allow local and state police to detain immigrants at the request of federal authorities for up to six hours. This six-hour window would apply to someone arrested for any terrorist-related activity and includes immigrants previously convicted of serious crimes such as sexual assault, gang-related activity, human or drug trafficking, and domestic violence.
“We believe that this newly modified bill is a commonsense, policy prudent, and safety-[oriented] approach,” wrote Chelsea police Chief Brian Kyes, who heads the state’s Major City Police Chiefs Association, in a letter endorsing the bill. “This important legislative change will absolutely enhance public safety in our respective communities by preventing dangerous individuals who meet the aforementioned criteria from being released back into our cities and towns to potentially [reoffend] and commit further acts of violence.”
The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association Executive Committee also endorsed the new language.
Matias said the stamp of approval by the police chiefs should help her colleagues in the Legislature take up the bill, which had all but stalled.
“Massachusetts should remember its values. We’re not necessarily leading on this,” Matias said, adding that California, New York, and Connecticut have passed similar legislation. “It’s about making sure that Massachusetts also sends a very clear message that in our state we’re going to ensure everyone’s safety is a priority while respecting our immigrant communities.”
Advocates appreciate the protections that remain in the bill for immigrants, but some balk at the idea of honoring detainer requests.
The original version of the bill, which was filed in 2017 by Matias and Eldridge in response to President Trump’s immigration policies, prohibited local law enforcement from cooperating with requests from federal immigration authorities to detain immigrants.
The original bill also contained some provisions that remain, including preventing local and state law enforcement officials from arresting people based on their immigration status; prohibiting officers from becoming deputized as immigration agents; barring state agencies from sharing information with any federal program that would create a registry for Muslims; and reinforces that an immigrant in police custody must be made aware of his or her right to decline an interview by federal authorities.
Advocates for immigrants, law enforcement officials, and the governor’s office all point to a July ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court as to why the “six-hour no-bail provision period” is either necessary or superfluous.
The court determined that police officers currently don’t have the authority under Massachusetts law to comply with detainer requests issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Doing so, the state’s highest court said, would be akin to an illegal arrest, unless the Legislature changes state law.
Advocates say this is the way it should stay, but Baker has already proposed legislation that would allow law enforcement agencies to honor the detention requests.
The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and the Major City Police Chiefs Association have also expressed support for that bill.
“We should not be proposing and considering legislation that would dilute the SJC’s ruling,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director for the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. “I recognize that this is not as harsh as the legislative proposals that have been generated by the governor, but they still create loopholes that will compromise the well-being of immigrants in our communities. We need strong protections for immigrants in Massachusetts, not less.”
Marion Davis, spokeswoman for Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, took a more conciliatory approach, saying she, too, worries about undermining the decision by the state’s highest court but understands that concessions are necessary.
“Do we like those amendments? No. Do we wish they didn’t have to be there? Absolutely,” Davis said. “We feel like some of the particular bits of language in there are problematic. All of that said, this is a really important bill. We’d rather have a compromise bill than no bill.”
Brendan Moss, the governor’s press secretary, said in a statement that the administration is troubled by “several provisions in this proposal” that would “make it very difficult for immigration authorities to detain certain criminals convicted of serious, violent crimes who are also in the country illegally, forcing authorities to release them back into Massachusetts communities.”
Instead, Moss said, Baker wants the Legislature to take up the bill he’s proposed. It too gives local law enforcement agencies the right to hold immigrants who are deemed a threat to public safety for up to 12 hours. Anything beyond that would require judicial review.
Baker’s bill does not address the other issues spelled out in what is now being called an “Act to Protect the Civil Rights and Safety of all Massachusetts Residents.”
Eldridge said he’s surprised the governor “continues to use this rhetoric,” which he said is endemic of the partisan gridlock that has consumed the immigration debate.
“To get the police chiefs to unanimously endorse a bill on an issue that we’re not always going to agree on speaks volumes,” he said. “If [Baker] compromises on this issue or this bill, his Republican base will rebel. He’s trying to thread the needle by generally being a moderate Republican, but on an issue like immigration he has to be hardline.”